Notes & Quotes: Island by Aldous Huxley

“That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.”

Island by Aldous Huxley takes the reader on a journey to the “ideal” society, an island oasis hidden in the Pacific Ocean. But as all good things must come to an end, the inhabitants of Pala, the Pacific Island paradise, must cope with the realities of an increasingly globalized world.

The novel follows a British journalist who finds himself ashore Pala after a storm. The people of Pala, unlike any people he’s ever met, immediately care for him.

During his recovery several of the most prominent citizens of Pala visit him. Eventually they give him a tour of the island and the society they’ve created.

Island serves more as Huxley’s philosophical treatise than an action packed page turner. The characters have a necessary depth, but they also serve the purpose of speaking about the ills Huxley sees in Western Society during the mid 20th Century.

The Island is the location of this mythical utopia. A place where people value Awareness, the Mind-Body connection, and the Human Experience rather than Materialism, Happiness, and Power.

Huxley’s novel challenges many of the readers preconceived views on society and how we should live. He eviscerates the materialist culture that boomed in the post War years. He also introduces ideas about psychedelics, free love, and population control that may be unfamiliar and unpalatable to certain readers.

Whether you agree with Huxley’s conclusions or not, if you read Island with an open mind you will come away from this book with a fresh perspective and new insights into the Human Experience.

The following are quotes you may find compelling, insightful, or unique:

ON THE THREAT OF A GLOBALIZED WORLD

“In those days Pala was still completely off the map. The idea of turning it into an oasis of freedom and happiness made sense. So long as it remains out of touch with the rest of the world, an ideal society can be a viable society. Pala was completely viable, I’d say, until about 1905. Then, in less than a single generation, the world completely changed. Movies, cars, airplanes, radio. Mass production, mass slaughter, mass communication and, above all, plain mass—more and more people in bigger and bigger slums or suburbs. By 1930 any clear-sighted observer could have seen that, for three quarters of the human race, freedom and happiness were almost out of the question. Today, thirty years later, they’re completely out of the question. And meanwhile the outside world has been closing in on this little island of freedom and happiness. Closing in steadily and inexorably, coming nearer and nearer. What was once a viable ideal is now no longer viable.”

ON SOCIETY

So beware of being too rational. In the country of the insane, the integrated man doesn’t become king.

“If your children take the idiocy seriously, they grow up to be miserable sinners. And if they don’t take it seriously, they grow up to be miserable cynics. And if they react from miserable cynicism, they’re apt to go Papist or Marxist. No wonder you have to have all those thousands of jails and churches and Communist cells.”

“which is better—to be born stupid into an intelligent society or intelligent into an insane one?”\

ON PREVENTION VS TREATMENT

“So you think our medicine’s pretty primitive?”

“That’s the wrong word. It isn’t primitive. It’s fifty percent terrific and fifty percent nonexistent. Marvelous antibiotics—but absolutely no methods for increasing resistance, so that antibiotics won’t be necessary. Fantastic operations—but when it comes to teaching people the way of going through life without having to be chopped up, absolutely nothing. And it’s the same all along the line. Alpha Plus for patching you up when you’ve started to fall apart; but Delta Minus for keeping you healthy. Apart from sewerage systems and synthetic vitamins, you don’t seem to do anything at all about prevention. And yet you’ve got a proverb: prevention is better than cure.”  

ON AWARENESS

Just men and women and their children trying to make the best of the here and now, instead of living somewhere else, as you people mostly do, in some other time, some other homemade imaginary universe. And it really isn’t your fault. You’re almost compelled to live that way because the present is so frustrating. And it’s frustrating because you’ve never been taught how to bridge the gap between theory and practice, between your New Year’s resolutions and your actual behavior.

“Be fully aware of what you’re doing, and work becomes the yoga of work, play becomes the yoga of play, everyday living becomes the yoga of everyday living.”

They’re taught to pay attention to what they see and hear, and at the same time they’re asked to notice how their feelings and desires affect what they experience of the outer world, and how their language habits affect not only their feelings and desires but even their sensations. What my ears and my eyes record is one thing; what the words I use and the mood I’m in and the purposes I’m pursuing allow me to perceive, make sense of and act upon is something quite different.

ON GRIEVING

“Does one learn how to forget?” 

“It isn’t a matter of forgetting. What one has to learn is how to remember and yet be free of the past. How to be there with the dead and yet still be here, on the spot, with the living.” She gave him a sad little smile and added, “It isn’t easy.”

She broke off, and suddenly Will found himself looking at Incarnate Bereavement with seven swords in her heart. Reading the signs of pain in the dark eyes, about the corners of the full-lipped mouth, he knew that the wound had been very nearly mortal and, with a pang in his own heart, that it was still open, still bleeding. He pressed her hands. There was nothing, of course, that one could say, no words, no consolations of philosophy—only this shared mystery of touch, only this communication from skin to skin of a flowing infinity.

ON THE PSYCHEDELIC EXPERIENCE

“And what, may I ask, does Mozart’s G-Minor Quintet refer to? Does it refer to Allah? Or Tao? Or the second person of the Trinity? Or the Atman-Brahman?”

Will laughed. “Let’s hope not.” 

“But that doesn’t make the experience of the G-Minor Quintet any less rewarding. Well, it’s the same with the kind of experience that you get with the moksha-medicine, or through prayer and fasting and spiritual exercises. Even if it doesn’t refer to anything outside itself, it’s still the most important thing that ever happened to you. Like music, only incomparably more so. And if you give the experience a chance, if you’re prepared to go along with it, the results are incomparably more therapeutic and transforming.

Its presence was his absence. William Asquith Farnaby—ultimately and essentially there was no such person. Ultimately and essentially there was only a luminous bliss, only a knowledgeless understanding, only union with unity in a limitless, undifferentiated awareness. This, self-evidently, was the mind’s natural state.

He stood there motionless, gazing, gazing through a timeless succession of mounting intensities and ever-profounder significances. Tears filled his eyes and overflowed at last onto his cheeks. He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped them away. “I can’t help it,” he apologized. He couldn’t help it because there was no other way in which he could express his thankfulness. Thankfulness for the privilege of being alive and a witness to this miracle, of being, indeed, more than a witness—a partner in it, an aspect of it. Thankfulness for these gifts of luminous bliss and knowledgeless understanding. Thankfulness for being at once this union with the divine unity and yet this finite creature among other finite creatures.

ON THE NECESSITY OF MOVEMENT

“Or rather with everything—but in a condition of complete unconsciousness and toxic stagnation. Western intellectuals are all sitting-addicts. That’s why most of you are so repulsively unwholesome. In the past even a duke had to do a lot of walking, even a moneylender, even a metaphysician. And when they weren’t using their legs, they were jogging about on horses. Whereas now, from the tycoon to his typist, from the logical positivist to the positive thinker, you spend nine tenths of your time on foam rubber. Spongy seats for spongy bottoms—at home, in the office, in cars and bars, in planes and trains and buses. No moving of legs, no struggles with distance and gravity—just lifts and planes and cars, just foam rubber and an eternity of sitting. The life force that used to find an outlet through striped muscle gets turned back on the viscera and the nervous system, and slowly destroys them.”

ON MEDIA

The reader’s in a position to compare their arguments and make up his own mind. I remember how shocked I was the first time I read one of your big-circulation newspapers. The bias of the headlines, the systematic one-sidedness of the reporting and the commentaries, the catchwords and slogans instead of argument. No serious appeal to reason. Instead, a systematic effort to install conditioned reflexes in the minds of the voters—and, for the rest, crime, divorce, anecdotes, twaddle, anything to keep them distracted, anything to prevent them from thinking.”

ON WESTERN VALUES

Armaments, universal debt, and planned obsolescence—those are the three pillars of Western prosperity. If war, waste, and moneylenders were abolished, you’d collapse.

ON RITUAL INITIATION

“An ordeal,” Dr. Robert explained, “which is the first stage of their initiation out of childhood into adolescence. An ordeal that helps them to understand the world they’ll have to live in, helps them to realize the omnipresence of death, the essential precariousness of all existence. But after the ordeal comes the revelation. In a few minutes these boys and girls will be given their first experience of the moksha-medicine. They’ll all take it together, and there’ll be a religious ceremony in the temple.”

ON DYING

“For the last months of her life she was no more the Aunt Mary I had loved and admired; she was somebody else, somebody (and this was the ironist’s final and most exquisite touch) almost indistinguishable from the worst and weakest of the old people she had once befriended and been a tower of strength to. She had to be humiliated and degraded; and when the degradation was complete, she was slowly, and with a great deal of pain, put to death in solitude. In solitude,” he insisted. “For of course nobody can help, nobody can ever be present. People may stand by while you’re suffering and dying; but they’re standing by in another world. In your world you’re absolutely alone. Alone in your suffering and your dying, just as you’re alone in love, alone even in the most completely shared pleasure.”

ON CULTURE

The dancer’s grace and, forty years on, her arthritis—both are functions of the skeleton. It is thanks to an inflexible framework of bones that the girl is able to do her pirouettes, thanks to the same bones, grown a little rusty, that the grandmother is condemned to a wheelchair. Analogously, the firm support of a culture is the prime-condition of all individual originality and creativeness; it is also their principal enemy. The thing in whose absence we cannot possibly grow into a complete human being is, all too often, the thing that prevents us from growing.

ON RELIGION

Given the nature of spiders, webs are inevitable. And given the nature of human beings, so are religions. Spiders can’t help making flytraps, and men can’t help making symbols. That’s what the human brain is there for—to turn the chaos of given experience into a set of manageable symbols.

ON DIFFERENCES BETWEEN WESTERN & EASTERN SOCIETIES

“What are boys and girls for?”

Will shrugged his shoulders. “The answer depends on where you happen to be domiciled. For example, what are boys and girls for in America? Answer: for mass consumption. And the corollaries of mass consumption are mass communications, mass advertising, mass opiates in the form of television, meprobamate, positive thinking and cigarettes. And now that Europe has made the breakthrough into mass production, what will its boys and girls be for? For mass consumption and all the rest—just like the boys and girls in America. Whereas in Russia there’s a different answer. Boys and girls are for strengthening the national state. Hence all those engineers and science teachers, not to mention fifty divisions ready for instant combat and equipped with everything from tanks to H-bombs and long-range rockets. And in China it’s the same, but a good deal more so. What are boys and girls for there? For cannon fodder, industry fodder, agriculture fodder, road-building fodder. So East is East and West is West—for the moment. But the twain may meet in one or other of two ways. West may get so frightened of East that it will give up thinking that boys and girls are for mass consumption and decide instead that they’re for cannon fodder and strengthening the state. Alternatively East may find itself under such pressure from the appliance-hungry masses who long to go Western, that it will have to change its mind and say that boys and girls are really for mass consumption. But that’s for the future. As of now, the current answers to your question are mutually exclusive.”

ON LIVING UNDER OPPRESSIVE REGIMES

“And what will you do if the worst happens?” 

“Try to make the best of it, I suppose. Even in the worst society an individual retains a little freedom. One perceives in private, one remembers and imagines in private, one loves in private, and one dies in private—even under Colonel Dipa.”

ON ANGER MANAGEMENT

“Here’s a simple case,” said the Principal. “An angry or frustrated child has worked up enough power for a burst of crying, or bad language, or a fight. If the power generated is sufficient for any of those things, it’s sufficient for running, or dancing, more than sufficient for five deep breaths. I’ll show you some dancing later on. For the moment, let’s confine ourselves to breathing. Any irritated person who takes five deep breaths releases a lot of tension and so makes it easier for himself to behave rationally. So we teach our children all kinds of breathing games, to be played whenever they’re angry or upset…

The old repressive ‘Thou shalt not’ has been translated into a new expressive and rewarding ‘Thou shalt.’ Potentially harmful power has been redirected into channels where it’s not merely harmless, but may actually do some good.

ON EXPERIENCE VS KNOWLEDGE

“Twenty years earlier,” said Dr. Robert, “I did a stint at the copper smelters. After which I had a taste of the sea on a fishing boat. Sampling all kinds of work—it’s part of everybody’s education. One learns an enormous amount that way—about things and skills and organizations, about all kinds of people and their ways of thinking.” 

Will shook his head. “I’d still rather get it out of a book.” 

“But what you can get out of a book is never it. At bottom,” Dr. Robert added, “all of you are still Platonists. You worship the word and abhor matter!”

“You never saw anybody dying, and you never saw anybody having a baby. How did you get to know things?”

“In the school I went to,” he said, “we never got to know things, we only got to know words.”

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